The Hero's Journey
There are things that we know and things that we don't. Knowledge keeps us comfortable, safe, and alive, but it's never enough. Death looks for new ways to get to us by using the unknown against us. New diseases, dilemmas, and other threats are always arising. To fight death, we learn his tactics. We step into the Land of the Dead and confront him, with the only thing he can't destroy: truth. It's the armour that death can't break – it's timeless. Truth is timeless, and death is time. When we confront him, he shows us where we lack armour. Those parts die, and hopefully, it's not all of us.
Science understands this process well. It takes an idea and tries to kill it, and hopefully, the whole thing doesn't die. Whatever remains of the idea is used as a foundation for newer ideas, and these ideas are subjected to the forces of death again and again, and if they survive, we assume they contain a piece of the truth.
But there are truths that can't be found in a lab, such as how we should live our lives. Perhaps, the best place to look for the answer to this question is in mythology.
After a lifetime of studying myth, Joseph Campbell noticed a reoccurring pattern: different cultures told similar stories of an admirable figure who left the world of comfort, stepped into the unknown, confronted the forces of death, and in doing so, gave us a glimpse of the truth – the knowledge to overcome death.
This figure was called a hero, and Joseph Campbell called this "The Hero's Journey". A hero puts the truth above their own ego. In some stories, they initially believe the wrong idea, and when they battle death, the idea dies, but eventually they overcome him by learning the truth, and they share this hard-earned wisdom with us. This story represents a psychological death and rebirth: a part of the hero's worldview dies and a better one is born.
In other stories, the hero is asked to make the ultimate sacrifice. The Reaper proposes a deal: die in the pursuit of truth or abandon it and survive. In this story, death can only win by getting the hero to embrace their ego and walk away from the truth. The forces of death want the hero to regret ever pursuing it and to convince others to abandon it as well. But the hero gladly embraces death and becomes a martyr for the truth: they don't want to live in a world of lies, and they know that others will continue the pursuit. By refusing the Reaper's deal and gladly accepting death, the hero has actually transcended it.
Albert Camus said that "what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying." Heroic martyrs show us what makes life worth living by choosing to die for it. A physical death is sometimes accompanied by a physical rebirth. In both versions of the hero's story, we are shown that truth is what overcomes death, and it's also what makes life worth living.
Joseph Campbell was often asked how we could find our hero's journey, and he encouraged us to follow our bliss – the thing that intrinsically motivates us or calls on us. It's a thing outside of ourselves that gives our lives meaning. Even if we were to lose everything – fame, money, power – we would look at it and say, “at least I still have my bliss.” It's not about what gives us pleasure. It transcends us; it's more important than our ego. Our bliss sustains us through hardship, suffering, and minor skirmishes with death.
And one day, if the Reaper approached us and asked if the thing we're living for was worth making the ultimate sacrifice, we would answer yes. A hero is someone who finds what's worth dying for, and in doing so, they show us what's worth living for. They show us how to overcome death with truth.